Back in June of this year, in collaboration with Rowing Canada Aviron, we asked sport organizations to complete a survey related to absentee voting. Absentee voting has recently become more topical as organizations continue their transition to the new not-for-profit legislation – the NFP Act (for national corporations) and the ONCA (for Ontario corporations).
In particular, the new requirement that the annual meeting be held within six months of the fiscal year end is creating significant challenges for many summer sport organizations who hold their annual meetings more than six months after their March 31 year end. To resolve this problem, a handful of sport organizations are considering changing their fiscal year-end. Many more, however, are considering ways to hold a slimmed down annual meeting incorporating various forms of absentee voting within the six month period.
The NFP Act, at Section 171 states: “The bylaws of the corporation may provide for any prescribed method of voting for members not in attendance at a meeting of members. If the bylaws so provide, they shall set out procedures for collecting, counting and reporting the results of the vote”. Section 74 of the Regulations describes, in elaborate detail, “the prescribed methods of voting”.
For the purposes of our survey, we distinguished between ‘proxy voting’ and ‘absentee voting’. Many sport organizations allow proxy voting, which involves an absent voter giving his or her right to vote to another voter who is going to be present at the meeting. Absentee voting refers to an eligible voter, who is not going to be physically present at a meeting of the members, casting their own vote using an electronic, faxed, or mailed-in ballot.
A benefit of both proxy and absentee voting is that the voter does not have to be physically present in order to have their voice counted – which is useful if the voter lives far away from the location of the meeting. And in this big country, it is a given that many members of national organizations will be far removed from any meeting!
The purpose of our survey was to understand how organizations have used absentee voting (namely voting by mail, email, fax or some internet program) in the past, the respondents’ feelings about absentee voting, and any challenges that they perceived with such a method of voting.
We received detailed responses from 44 organizations, and here is some of what we learned:
The major issues with absentee voting are how the organization can manage absentee voting, identify the voters, and track whether or not the individual has cast a vote. Sixty-eight percent of the respondents did not use absentee voting in their organizations. But for those organizations that did use absentee voting, the most common method was the voter emailing their vote directly to a scrutineer.
The survey results revealed that electronic voting was the most desired method of absentee voting with 61% of the respondents preferring to vote absentee by ‘completing an online form’ and 32% of the respondents preferring to vote absentee by ‘Email’. There was far less support for mail ballots or fax ballots.
One of the issues with absentee voting by electronic means is when the ‘voting window’ should be open to absentee voters. Respondents wanted absentee voters to receive the voting options either ‘two weeks’ or ‘four weeks’ in advance of the vote, and a large majority wanted the voting window to remain open during the meeting.
What to Vote On
Currently, according to the respondents, ‘Election of Directors’ is the most common topic that is voted on by absentee ballot. When voting in elections, respondents wanted the following information available to absentee voters:
- 100% – Candidate’s plans and/or reason for running for election
- 100% – Candidate’s bio
- 93% – Candidate’s work/volunteer history
- 93% – Candidate’s skill set
- 53% – Candidate’s picture
When voting for bylaw amendments, respondents wanted the following information available to absentee voters:
- 100% – rationale for amendment
- 100% – description of new amendment
- 93% – old bylaw being amended (if applicable)
- 77% – individual/group proposing the amendment
- 70% – pros and cons of the amendment
When voting to approve financial statements, respondents wanted the following information available to absentee voters:
- 95% – financial statements
- 81% – statement from the Treasurer
- 66% – identity of the auditor
We asked open-ended questions to identify any snags or resistances to absentee voting. The most common responses were cost concerns and an organizational lack of understanding (and capacity) about absentee voting systems. Respondents were also concerned that not all voters may have online access and may not receive the proper information to be able to vote.
Respondents were also concerned that the process may be “manipulated by staff or by active board members”. Absentee voters may also not get the benefit of hearing discussion at the meeting about a motion and any amendments (or nominated Directors) that come from the floor of a meeting.
A slight majority of the respondents (56%) believed that members would be “less satisfied” if the voting component of the meeting was held entirely by absentee ballot. One respondent suggested that with a smaller organization, the meeting of the members is an annual highlight and absentee voting would reduce attendance at the meeting meaning that individuals would not get involved with the organization.
The new NFP legislation has encouraged some organizations to revise their membership structure and make individuals the members with voting powers. In some cases, this creates a logistical problem whereby not everyone will go to the meeting. Investing in an absentee voting system is one possible solution to this problem.
Such a system will also help in terms of conducting an annual meeting at a less-than-ideal time for the membership. Several organizations that presently hold annual meetings in conjunction with well-attended member conferences or conventions outside the six month window are considering retaining the schedule of those conferences as a gathering for members, while conducting a simplified annual meeting with absentee voting during the six month period.
Following this survey, we did some research to learn more about electronic voting systems. There are several providers of such services, both in the US (www.balloteer.com for example) and Canada (www.simplyvoting.com for example), and we are confident that sport organizations will be able to implement absentee voting without great difficulty and at reasonable cost if they choose a sensible online program.
As an independent organization, the Sport Law & Strategy Group is also available to serve as a scrutineer for voting, or to assist in setting up an online voting system that is secure, accurate, and private.
Please feel free to contact Rachel Corbett (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you want to learn more about absentee voting, and about how other organizations are approaching this challenge.